Phase 1: Teaching Your Horse the Clicker Language
The Set Up:
Ideally put your horse in a stall with a stall guard that enables you to easily reach into the horse’s chest. Have your clicker in the left hand with the bracelet wrapped around your wrist. Many trainers wear fisherman’s vests to keep a variety of easily reachable treats. I use a day hiker, fanny pack that, in this example, I would place on my right hip, away from the horse’s muzzle. (We’ll get to mugging next.) Find an object your horse can touch: small training cone, large pill bottle, body brush, plastic bottle. Bring a step ladder, muck tub or chair to your work area.
Practice the movements without the horse first!
- Put the horse in stall.
- Walk away and count out 20 treats to put in your pack or pocket. (This is a great rule for new trainers as it gives you some time to evaluate where you are.) The treats must be easily reachable. If you have to struggle to get into the pocket you will frustrate your horse.
- Stand comfortably in front of your horse, a bit to her right, with the step ladder behind you.
- Place your Target Object (i.e. small cone) on the step ladder.
- Hold the clicker in your left hand, wrapped around your wrist.
- Take the cone in your right hand, face your horse and put the cone in front of her nose.
- Wait. Don’t talk. Just hold the target and let your horse find the answer.
- The second she touches it, click.
- Turn and place the cone on the ladder.
- Reach into your pocket for one treat. Place the treat in your palm. Close your fingers. Turn your hand over so that closed fingers are pointing down. Straighten your arm and direct your fist into your horse’s chest until she backs into her stall. Rotate and open your hand and feed the treat in Her Space.
- Step back into Your Space. Get the cone and repeat. Make it easy by returning to the same spot each time for the 20 treats.
In the beginning of training any new behavior, you want to be able to reward often and every time. When the horse doesn’t get it, we “chunk” the exercise down into easier parts.
- The trainer isn’t set up so the behavior she wants isn’t obvious to the horse. The horse tries this and that and either gets mad or gives up.
- The trainer clicks late. Have someone watch you.
- The trainer fumbles with the treat. Practice the movement before you have the horse. This is an ideal way to hand feed the horse all the time….in Her Space, not Yours. After a while your horse will learn to back up, arch her neck and wait for the reward. She will automatically back out of your space when you enter her stall. These nifty “side effects” of clicker training should also be clicked and treated.
- When I am at the farm, I always have on my hiking bag with the large center pocket filled with grain and the two side pockets filled with special treats for those “jack pot” moments. My thoroughbred’s grain rations are primarily fed through clicker training. If I had an insulin resistant horse, I would feet low octane treats. This obviously breaks the 20 treat rule.
- I think novice trainers want to rush things. As soon as the horse touches the target they want to move it to the hardest position. Get methodical, especially in the beginning when your horse and you are learning a new language together. There is always the rest of the day, the week and the month! Initially clicker may take 500 baby steps to get where you are going. But what a foundation your will build! Before long your horse will begin offering behaviors, she will know that when there is no click she has to keep looking for an answer. In challenging behaviors anything close to what you want gets rewarded as you “shape” the behavior.
- Many novice trainers just don’t click enough. They keep waiting for the end-result behavior instead of something close to it. Your horse will work harder if she feels successful.
- If you accidentally click, always feed a treat. I just say, “Freebie!” Most horse trainers don’t get into the “treat less click”. Read Alex’s books for more info on this and the difference between dog and horse trainers. I have trained my dog and two horses. Some of the work is quite different so get educated.
Let’s say after going through 60 treats or 3 training sessions, your horse has “got it”. She knows that she is supposed to touch the target.
Next step and we put this in questions:
Can you touch the target on your left side? (for a number of sessions)
…below your nose? …below and to the right of your nose? …below and to the left of your nose? …a little above your nose? …a little above and to the right? …a little above and to the left? …way above your nose? (This can be tough so you might have to wait it out why the horse touches you!) Take your time! These questions should be answered during a week, not a day, especially at the beginning.
If you get stuck, just back up to what your horse could easily do. Get some successes from the rest of your treats, and then retry the harder positions. Work for as long as you and the horse are doing well and having fun. It’s ok to finish a bag, tell the horse the training is over and begin grooming or something else. Then go back to training after the saddle is on and so forth.
Develop your own cue for telling your horse the lesson is finished. I usually say, “OK, we’re finished.” And give Sunny a handful of treats. That ends training on a good note.
What if your horse finally touches the cone over her head after a long work session? We call those moments “jackpots”. Click, put your cone down as usual, then give your horse either a handful of treats or a few treats and a super treat (peppermint). Just do something to mark the breakthrough. I do a lot of petting and telling him what a smart guy he is. A plain old, “Yeah!” combined with a treat-salary works too!
The Importance of Planning Ahead
I taught my horse to touch small cones exactly as described. After he could touch anywhere and nicely back into his space for the treat, I continued:
Can you touch the cone on the ground in front of your stall?
Can you pick up the cone? (Anything more than touch is a clickable behavior.)
Can you pick up the cone and give it to me? (Most horses like to sweep the ground with the cone so you have to be very generous with clicking anything that is near you and then get a hold of it! If you hang in there, they will give you the cone but it takes a while or at least it did for me.)
If I let you out of the stall, can you pick up the cone in the barn aisle and give it to me?
…in the round pen and give it to me?
What if I sit on a muck tub and throw the cone 2 feet away? Can you pick it up and bring it to me? We call this “Pick Up Your Toys”.
Can you pick up the fuzzy ball and bring it to me?
…the soft rubber ball?
Can you pick up the item I ask for? (ie learn the names of objects. We haven’t gotten here yet!)
Can you pick up the riding crop? …your lead rope? …your rein? …your hard brush? …your face brush?
Can you do all of this at liberty in the barn? At liberty in the round pen? In your field with other horses? At a horse show?
You get the drift; I make the environment more and more challenging. Obviously you can do as much or as little as you want but it’s fun to work with.
All good, right? So now when I am working around small cones, say for free lunging, guess who delivers the cones?!
I have put out large road cones for “work” but much of the time Sunny feels compelled to at least touch them as he passes by! LOL Maybe I should have started out with a large pill bottle instead! Think ahead. If you don’t want your horse nailing you with a foreleg, then don’t teach him to shake or wave good bye until you are more experienced and know you can put it “on cue”, that is you only get the behavior when you ask for it and no other time.
Now that your horse knows that click means, “She liked that behavior; I will do it again, after my treat.”
We can move on to dealing with mugging behavior otherwise known as I am Not a Vending Machine or Quiet While the Grown Ups are Talking. (in process)